Religions of the World — AP World History: Modern Notes

The AP World History: Modern course and exam explore the story of humanity beginning in the year 1200. Before you begin a detailed review of what was occurring in the world circa 1200 onward, it’s helpful to first review the various belief systems and philosophies that span continents and millennia and that have impacted history in ways both big and small. 

Table of Contents:

Religions of the World: Shinto

Shinto is the indigenous religion of Japan. The early Japanese people believed that kami—spirits— were present in their natural surroundings. These beliefs coalesced into the Shinto religion. People built shrines to honor kami, and Japanese emperors claimed to descend from the supreme Shinto deity, the sun goddess Amaterasu. 

Religions of the World: Hinduism

Hinduism originated in India, but its creation cannot be linked to a specific time or person; it is a belief system that evolved over time. Hinduism actually refers to a wide variety of beliefs and practices that developed in South Asia. Hinduism is often described as not only a religion, but a way of life.

At the most basic level, Hindus believe they have a dharma (roughly translated as duty) to perform in life. If all follow their dharma, the world works smoothly. If it is violated, the natural order falls out of sync. This dharma is determined by birth and one’s stage in life. If one follows his or her dharma, then karma (the sum of all good and bad deeds performed) will be the result. It is the accumulation of good karma that allows someone to move up in the level of saṃsāra in their next life.

Hinduism is a polytheistic religion that believes in Brahma, the creator god, and his various incarnations including Vishnu, Shiva, and Devi. Bhakti is a popular practice in which followers have a personal devotion to a particular deity. Hindus believe they will be reincarnated (reborn) after death. The new position they assume in the next life will depend on how well they performed their dharma in the past life. The ultimate goal for Hindus is to end the cycle of reincarnation by finally reaching moksha, or oneness with the universe. 

Religions of the World: Buddhism

The founder of Buddhism is Siddhartha Gautama, who lived from approximately 563 B.C.E. to 483 B.C.E. He was raised as a prince in a small state near present-day Nepal. After living a sheltered life, he decided to leave the palace in search of answers to questions such as: “Why is there so much suffering in the world?” and “Is there a way out of suffering?” According to Buddhist teachings, after meditating under a bodhi tree, the prince reached enlightenment and became known as the Buddha (translated variously as “Awakened One” or “Enlightened One”).

The Buddha made a crucial decision that helped transform his ideas from the thoughts of one man into a world religion: he decided to teach what he had learned to others. The Buddha taught that there were four noble truths:

  1. All life is suffering.
  2. Suffering is caused by desire.
  3. There is a way out of suffering.
  4. The way out of suffering is to follow the Eightfold Path.

The ultimate goal for Buddhists is to reach nirvana, which is the release from the cycles of rein- carnation and the achievement of union with the universe. Buddhism took the central ideas of Hinduism, such as dharma, karma, and saṃsāra, but altered them significantly. According to Buddhism, people do not need rituals, and gods and goddesses are not necessary; everyone can seek enlightenment on his or her own, and no one is an outcast by birth. This belief challenges the historically established caste system in India. 

Buddhist Missionaries

Along the Silk Road, Buddhism traveled to Central Asia and adapted into variants, which included polytheism. In Tibet, it became popular as it combined shamanism and the importance of rituals. In East Asia, monks, merchants, and missionaries adapted Buddhism to the political ideas of Confucianism by including Daoist ideas, an emphasis on family, and ancestor worship. 

Particularly during chaotic times, Buddhism appealed to people as an avenue toward personal enlightenment. Chinese Buddhism spread to Korea, where it received royal support, and to Japan. In Japan, Shinto leaders initially resisted Buddhism. Eventually, syncretism (the fusion of differing systems of beliefs) occurred after Buddhism blended into the worship of Shinto divinities.

Because Buddhism lacked an organized Church, it could merge with local people’s ideas. However, Buddhism was often replaced by more organized religions. In Central Asia, for instance, Islam eventually replaced Buddhism as the dominant religion. In China, the Tang Dynasty stopped supporting Buddhism in the ninth century. 

Religions of the World: Daoism

Some claim that the Chinese sage Laozi founded the Daoist school of thought during the sixth century B.C.E., around the same time as Confucius. The literal translation of the Dao is “the way.” According to Daoism, all life is interdependent, and human beings should exist in harmony with nature. Its advice is to relax and be in harmony with the Dao. In order to solve the problems of the day, Daoists taught the concept of wu wei, which means act by not acting. Do nothing and problems will solve themselves, like in nature. Be like water—soft and yielding—but at the same time, very naturally powerful.

Daoists believe it is useless to try to build institutions to govern people, because institutions (or anything that rewards knowledge) are dangerous. Institutions lead to competition and, eventually, to fighting. The less government interference, the better; the ideal state is a small, self-sufficient town. The ultimate goal, according to Daoists, should be to cultivate the virtues of patience, selflessness, and concern for all.

In Chinese society, Daoism provided a counterpoint to the proper behavior of Confucianism; it encouraged people to relax and just let things happen. It allowed the Chinese, essentially, to be Confucian at work and Daoist while not at work. The Daoist attitude toward war was that it should be used only for defensive purposes. The Han Chinese followed this idea by stationing troops along the Great Wall to maintain the safety of trade routes. 

Religions of the World: Confucianism

Confucius (551–479 B.C.E.) was a philosopher who believed that the key to ending the chaos of his time and to bringing back peace was to find the right kind of leadership to rule China. His two most important concepts were ren (appropriate feelings) and li (correct actions), which must be used together in order to have any effect. Additionally, filial piety (respect for one’s parents) was a key concept. Confucianism became the most influential philosophy in China, and its ideas spread to Korea and Japan, where they also had significant influence.

Confucius taught that order would be achieved when people knew their proper roles and relationships to others. Rulers would govern by moral example. People would learn to behave properly through the example of those superior to them. According to Confucius, there are five key relationships: ruler and ruled, father and son, husband and wife, older brother and younger brother, and friends.

Neo-Confucianism, a remodeled form of Confucianism, developed in the ninth century as a response to Buddhism and Daoism. It rejected mysticism in favor of a rationalist approach, emphasizing individual self-improvement and the goodness of humanity. Nevertheless, it also reworked some concepts and principles from Buddhism. Neo-Confucianism dominated Chinese philosophy from the late Tang Dynasty until the twentieth century, and it spread to Japan, Vietnam, and Korea. 

Religions of the World: Sikhism

In the north of the Indian subcontinent, Guru Nanak (1469–1539) founded Sikhism around the turn of the sixteenth century. Born to Hindu parents of the merchant caste, he is reputed by Sikh tradition to have traveled extensively. Nanak’s declaration that “There is no Muslim, and there is no Hindu” captures the essence of Sikhism. An example of syncretism, it bridges Hinduism and Islam, incorporating beliefs from both while maintaining an anti-sectarian stance.

Sikhism would be led by a series of gurus, who would modify its practices. For example, priestesses would be allowed, divorce legalized, and both veils and sati banned. Initially a pacifistic faith, it would grow militant in response to violent prosecution under the Mughal Empire from the mid-sixteenth century onward, culminating in the founding of the Sikh Empire (1799–1849). However, Sikhism would maintain its focus on social justice. 

Religions of the World: Judaism

Between 1200 and 1150 B.C.E., the civilizations bordering the eastern Mediterranean Sea suffered a violent societal collapse known as the Late Bronze Age collapse. Nearly every city in the region was destroyed in quick succession. Due to this cataclysm, the Canaanite city-state system in the Levant (the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea) broke down. Neighboring groups incorporated the remnants of this system into their own cultures. One such group lived in the south Levant, in highland settlements neighboring those city-states: the Hebrews, speakers of the ancient Hebrew language. The Hebrews trace their origin to the patriarch Abraham, whom they believe God called to found a new nation in Canaan. Although the Hebrews were sporadically conquered by neighboring empires such as the Assyrians, Babylonians, and Romans, they maintained their cultural identity through their religion, Judaism.

Uprisings against the Romans in the years 66 and 135 were violently suppressed with large military campaigns. Many Jews were killed and their holiest temple was leveled. In 135, the Romans drove the Jews out of their homeland. This scattering of the Jews is referred to as the Diaspora. Jews survived in scattered communities around the Mediterranean region, Persia, and Central Asia. (The terms Hebrews, Israelites, and Jews are sometimes used interchangeably in historical texts. In the present day, members of this ethnic and religious group are most commonly referred to as Jews.)

The Hebrews believe that they are protected by YHWH (God), a name considered too holy a word to say out loud. According to the Torah, the Hebrews are God’s chosen people. They entered into a covenant with God; they were forbidden from worshiping any other god and were obligated to follow certain religious laws, like the Ten Commandments. Some of these commandments include a prohibition against murder, adultery, or theft. Most important, the Hebrews followed a monotheistic tradition, which claims there is only one creator (God) who made the world and all life. As a monotheistic religion, Judaism greatly influenced the development of Christianity and Islam. 

Religions of the World: Christianity

Christianity centers on the figure of Jesus, who was born to Jewish parents between 6 and 4 B.C.E. Teachings describe Jesus as being concerned with the growing cosmopolitan nature of Jewish society and as preaching a simple message of love and compassion. Christian tradition also attributes to Jesus the power to perform miracles, such as healing the sick and raising the dead. Jesus taught that all people were equal and that the faithful would experience eternal life in heaven with God. These ideas especially appealed to the lower classes, slaves, and women. Given that there was ongoing tension between Rome and its Jewish subjects, Jesus’s teachings alarmed Roman authorities; in order to quell a potential rebellion, they had Jesus executed by crucifixion around the year 30. Followers believed that Jesus rose from the dead and that he was the son of God. As such, they compiled a body of writings about his life and his messages, which became the New Testament. Over the following centuries, Christianity gradually spread across the Roman Empire, and the world.

Several schisms have affected Christianity since its formation. Two of the three major Christian denominations—the Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church—disagreed over religious practices, such as the worship of idols (images of saints). Their respective leaders, the pope and the patriarch, excommunicated each other in 1054 in what became known as the East-West Schism. Originally a core aspect of the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire, the Eastern Orthodox form of Christianity later spread to the Slavic people and Russia. Protestantism, the third major Christian denomination, saw its inception in 1517 with the publication of Martin Luther’s Ninety-five Theses. 

Christian Missionaries

Like Buddhism, Christianity emerged as a missionary religion. When the Western Roman Empire was declining, missionary efforts turned toward Northern Europe. The Western Church and the pope sponsored missionary campaigns aimed at converting the Germanic people. The Eastern Orthodox Church also spread Christianity to Eastern Europe and Russia.

Syncretism aided the spread of Christianity. Pagan heroes or holy figures, such as the saints, were seen as mediators between God and his people. Polytheistic holidays were incorporated into Christianity, and Christians placed Christmas on the same day as the pagan winter solstice celebration. In Asia, Nestorian Christianity—the belief that Jesus existed as two distinct entities, mortal man and divine figure—spread to Mesopotamia and Persia, where Islamic conquerors allowed Christians to practice their religion. Merchants also spread Nestorian Christianity as far as India and China, but they received little or no support from local rulers.

Religions of the World: Islam

Prior to the introduction of Islam, inhabitants of the Arabian Peninsula, or Bedouins, lived in nomadic tribes led by sheikhs. Settlements arose along trade routes, as Arabs transported products between the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean. Although patriarchy dominated Arabian social structures, women were allowed to inherit property, initiate divorce agreements, and participate in business dealings. Most Arabs practiced a polytheistic form of religion, which included a principal god, Allah, although idol worship of lesser deities was commonplace as Allah was viewed as a remote figure. This changed with the coming of Muhammad.

Born in 570 in Mecca, Muhammad later married a merchant widow named Khadija. Together, they traveled on caravans and met Jews, Zoroastrians, and Christians. Muslims believe that the angel Gabriel revealed to Muhammad that he had been selected to be Allah’s messenger. Muhammad believed and preached that all people were to submit to one all-powerful, all-knowing God: Allah. All would face a final day of judgment; those who had submitted to Allah would go to a heavenly paradise, and those who had not would go to a fiery hell. He also taught that he was the last of a long line of prophets from the Jewish and Christian scriptures that included Abraham, Moses, David, and Jesus.

Muhammad’s message was not met with enthusiasm in Mecca; he and his followers migrated to Medina in 622, on a journey known as the Hegira (or Hijrah). Muhammad’s message proved popular in Medina, where he was viewed as a prophet and a political leader. In 630, after further organizing his new religion, he and his followers returned to Mecca, capturing the city. After his death, Muhammad’s revelations were written down by his followers in the Quran, which is believed to be the actual words of God as revealed to Muhammad. The word Islam means “submission to Allah.”

By the time of Muhammad’s death in 632, much of Arabia was under Islamic control. However, Muhammad did not designate a successor, and Muslim followers disagreed over who Muhammad’s successor should be. One group, the Shi’a, believed that the Muslim leader should be a descendant of Muhammad. The other group, the Sunni, believed that the wisest member of the strongest tribe should succeed Muhammad. Although Muhammad’s father-in-law Abu Bakr was chosen to be the first caliph, and he served as the political and religious leader of the Arab Empire, the split between Shi’a and Sunni Muslims led to religious and political divisions in the Muslim world that endure today.

Islam is based on five duties—called pillars—that define the faith:

  1. Statement of faith: “There is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is the messenger of Allah.”
  2. Pray five times a day facing Mecca.
  3. Give alms (charity) to the poor. 
  4. Fast during the holy month of Ramadan. 
  5. Make a pilgrimage, or hajj, to Mecca during one’s lifetime, if able.

Islam is a universal religion that promises salvation to all who believe and follow its principles. Islam appealed to women because the Quran afforded women equal status to men before God, outlawed female infanticide, and permitted wives to keep their dowries. However, the Quran allowed inheritance to be restricted to male offspring. It also restricted women’s social experiences in order to protect the legitimacy of offspring. In general, though, Islam appealed to the poor and powerless, and it fostered a strong sense of brotherhood. 

Missionaries in Islam

Islam spread through three main avenues: military conquest, trade, and missionary activity. Once Islam was introduced through one of those avenues, the religion spread because of its tolerance for other beliefs, its simple principles, and its emphasis on charity and spiritual equality. Also, Muslim rulers often levied a special tax against non-Muslims, which provided an economic incentive for conversion.

In sub-Saharan Africa, merchants introduced Islam to the ruling class through trade, and syncretism occurred. The kings still held a divine position, and women continued to have a prominent place in society, as was the local custom. In East Africa, Islam arrived via the Indian Ocean, where it mixed Arabic and African languages to create Swahili. In India, Turks brought Islam to the region in the eleventh century when they formed the Delhi Sultanate and used Hindu stories with Muslim characters, attracting both warriors and low-caste Hindus. The Sufis were the most active missionaries after 900, spreading Islam to Southern Europe, sub-Saharan Africa, Central Asia, India, and Southeast Asia.